Black Lives Matter Sues Police Department Over Illegal Surveillance Based On First Amendment Activities
from the wrong-thing-targeted dept
Members of a New York “Black Lives Matter” group are suing the town of Clarkstown and its police department over illegal surveillance. The plaintiffs allege they were placed under surveillance by the Clarkstown PD’s Strategic Intelligence Unit (SIU) for a number of reasons, none of which were legal uses of the agency’s spy wares.
It would seem the lawsuit [PDF] has a good chance of paying off. Allegations of racial profiling and illegally surveilling citizens for their First Amendment activities are backed by the results of investigations and one police official’s own admissions.
A letter to the US Attorney’s office in New York, attached as an exhibit, bolsters the claims made in the BLM lawsuit. In it, Clarkstown town Supervisor George Hoehman details a long list of surveillance violations and other police misconduct.
According to the letter [PDF], the SIU began surveillance of members of a play entitled “A Clean Shoot?” performed by a group called “We the People.” The surveillance included constant monitoring of their social media profiles and the deployment of geofencing in hopes of capturing anyone else who might be involved with the group and/or the play.
The Clarkstown PD shared the information it gathered with the Haverstraw Police Department — information that included the results of searches of criminal databases. Clarkstown’s SIU “warned” Haverstraw the next production of the play would be in September, but noted that participants posed no threat of violence despite harboring “strong opinions.”
When setting up the geofences, Clarkstown PD lumped BLM and We the People members in with gang members, terrorists, and other more legitimate targets of police surveillance. This continued even though they were told (repeatedly) by the local district attorney’s office they should not have Black Lives Matter listed as a surveillance target.
In August 2016, the special prosecutor handling the investigation of this surveillance demanded Clarkstown PD hand over communications pertaining to its spying on the two groups. He never received anything. Instead, Police Chief Michael Sullivan deleted all of the data from his issued cellphone. He also allowed Sgt. Steven Cole-Hatcher (head of the SIU) to wipe his own cellphone and to delete possibly-incriminating files from his departmental computer. Sullivan was suspended for fifteen days. Cole-Hatcher was given the opportunity to retire. He’s now suing to get his job back and it’s his filings that have generated a lot of the evidence needed by BLM to successfully pursue this lawsuit.
The letter also alleges things unrelated to the BLM lawsuit, but equally disturbing. Local law enforcement officials have apparently engaged in election interference, surveillance of judges, and monitoring of the town supervisor’s social media profiles with the department’s surveillance software.
Much of what’s in the most recent lawsuit retreads allegations made previously. Fortunately, some of those allegations have already been sustained. The lawsuit pleads violations of the First and Fourth Amendment and seeks damages and injunctions against future unlawful surveillance.
Chief Sullivan has (unhelpfully) explained BLM and We the People weren’t singled out for unlawful surveillance. He stated “many other groups and individuals” were surveilled by the SIU — a statement he made without clarifying whether these others instances were for legitimate reasons.
Adding the latest allegations to those already sustained suggests local law enforcement agencies have more in common with cancerous growths than the “protectors and servants” ideal.